At Louisiana State and then for 10 seasons in the NBA, Maravich fought a losing battle against what he considered to be misconceptions about his glittering, unorthodox game - that he was selfish, that he wasn't a winner, that he was all flash and no substance. In the end, he walked away from the game without the one thing he had always wanted - a championship ring - and he tried to build a new identity that had nothing to do with basketball. He became a Christian, a vegetarian, a doting husband and father. Then he died on a basketball court.
Maravich, 40, the college game's all-time leading scorer, apparently suffered a massive heart attack. He had been playing halfcourt pickup basketball at the First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena, Calif. After about two hours, during a break, Maravich walked over to one of the other participants, John Dobson, and said that he hadn't played in a year or so. Dobson asked Maravich how he was feeling.
"He said, 'I feel great, I feel fine.' He took one step and fell," Dobson said.
Dobson and ex-UCLA player Ralph Drollinger administered CPR until paramedics arrived. Maravich quickly lost consciousness and was pronounced dead at St. Luke's Medical Center in Pasadena at 9:34 a.m. PST after doctors spent 50 minutes trying to revive him. Doctors said they hoped to learn more about his death from an autopsy.
"I tried to do what I could, but he'd had a seizure. That was easy to see," said Dobson, who hosts a syndicated religious radio program on which Maravich was scheduled to appear. "He was jaundiced and his eyes rolled back in his head. His body was rigid. It was clear he was leaving. I called out to him, asked him not to go. But it was much too late."
"There was no heartbeat, no pulse, no vital signs," Drollinger said. "We tried to get him breathing again, but there was no sign of life."
In Phoenix, Cotton Fitzsimmons heard on his car radio that Pete Maravich was dead and had to pull off the road. Fitzsimmons, the Phoenix Suns' player personnel director, was Maravich's coach with the NBA Atlanta Hawks from 1972 to '74. The Hawks had made Maravich, a 6-5 guard, the third player chosen in the 1970 draft, and signed him to a then-unprecedented $1.9 million deal.
"He always said that his father, on the day he was born, put a basketball in his hands. He ate with it, slept with it, and, ironically, died with it in his hands," Fitzsimmons said.
Maravich's father, Peter "Press" Maravich Sr., was head basketball coach at Clemson and later at North Carolina State while Pete was growing up. As Pete was leaving high school, in 1966, Press became head coach at LSU, and Pete followed him. Pete Maravich soon became the most revolutionary basketball figure of his time - Bob Cousy, to a '60s hard-rock beat.
"Everybody who went through the turnstile at LSU or the NBA never got cheated," Fitzsimmons said. "He was an actor, and when he was on court, he was on stage. He always played to win, but he always played to the people, too."
Fitzsimmons knew Maravich during some of the legend's darkest times, when Maravich was fighting an alcohol problem, struggling with family troubles that eventually included his mother's suicide, and still was averaging more than 25 points per game for the Hawks.
In recent years, Maravich would explain his bitterness toward the game that had obsessed him by recalling a banner he said hung in the Spectrum during a 1972 Sixers-Hawks contest.
"The banner said, 'Pistol Pete, why do hot dogs cost $2 million in Atlanta and 35c in Philly?' That banner really summed up my career," he said.
The inner forces that drove him as a child to practice for hours outdoors in thunderstorms, to constantly dream up new crowd-pleasing tricks, to dribble a ball leaning out a car window while his father drove at speeds of up to 25 mph - those forces eventually drew him to the verge of suicide, he often said after his 1982 religious conversion.
He needed the cheering crowds that spurred his floppy-socks, floppy-hair ''showtime" act at LSU, where he averaged 44.2 points over three varsity seasons. When the crowds seemed to want more than he could provide - an NBA title for the Hawks, or later, the Jazz or the Celtics - Maravich grew depressed.
Ex-Sixer Fred Boyd, who played in the backcourt alongside Maravich for the then-New Orleans Jazz, recalled yesterday that the Jazz players nicknamed Maravich "Speed Racer," and that Maravich and Boyd used to race on Interstate 10 after practice. "He had a Porsche, I had a Jensen-Healey," Boyd said. "He was fascinated by speed."
Maravich recently recalled those days during one of his testimonial speeches:
"I used to drive my Porsche down the causeway (between New Orleans and Covington, La.) at 130-140 mph. I used to think, 'What would happen if I turned the wheel 10 degrees? It would all be over.' "
One irony is that Maravich survived his self-destructive period, only to die during a time in his life when he was living the life of a cautious, conservative family man.
Darrel Campbell collaborated with Maravich on his autobiography, "Pistol Pete: Heir to a Dream," which just came out a few months ago. Yesterday, Maravich was to meet with Campbell in Los Angeles about a "Pistol Pete" movie deal. Campbell said last night that Maravich made such trips reluctantly.
"He loved (wife) Jackie and his kids (Jaeson, 8, and Joshua, 5)," Campbell said. "He would arrange his schedule so he wasn't away from home more than 24 hours at a time."
Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden, in Philadelphia yesterday preparing for the Jazz-Sixers game tonight at the Spectrum, recalled that he had asked Maravich to become one of his assistant coaches when he took over the Jazz in 1981.
"He told me he no longer wanted to continue with the lifestyle, that he wanted to spend time with his wife and kids," Layden said. "I was disappointed for me, because I thought he would be a great help, but I thought, 'Isn't that great, that he wants to be with his family.' "
The Jazz retired Maravich's No. 7 two seasons ago. This past spring, Maravich was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., just two weeks after Press Maravich died of cancer at 71. Layden was a friend of Press Maravich and an admirer of his son's basketball style.
"He was one of the greatest players on the fastbreak who ever lived," Layden said. "The ballhandling drills, they still call them the 'Maravich drills,' even today . . . He enjoyed playing, and a lot of players today don't - they just go out there for the paycheck.
"He was why I always said the NBA should have gate-sharing," Layden said. ''On the road, he was just tremendous. He was one of the few players people would get up in the morning and say, 'I've got to go see this guy play' . . . Everywhere Pete went, he filled the building."
Jazz trainer Don Sparks, a close friend of Maravich from the New Orleans days, was there when "showtime" closed down. It was a night in February 1978 and the Jazz led Buffalo by about 25 points, Sparks said, but Maravich was still in the game, still working the crowd.
"He tried a midcourt, crosscourt, behind-the-back pass. There was nobody within 20 feet of him when he went down," Sparks said. "It was a (right knee) cartilage tear. I spent hours and hours working with him. It wasn't fully healed (when Maravich tried to play again.)."
Maravich, who had led the NBA in scoring in 1977 at 31.1 points per game, never again played a full season. He was waived by the Jazz in January 1980 and then signed with the Celtics, who snatched him away after the Sixers had brought him to Philadelphia for a physical. Maravich said he was determined to win a title, and he thought the Celtics were his best shot. They were eliminated in the playoffs by the Sixers. The next fall, he retired, even though the Celtics wanted him to stay on for '80-81. They won the NBA title that year.
Campbell said that during their interview sessions for the autobiography, Maravich, who averaged 24.2 points per game for his NBA career, expressed bitterness that he never got to play on a title team, never got a Julius Erving-style "farewell" tour.
Maravich had said that the end of his career sent him off on a search through Eastern religions and various mystical theories - he once painted a large message to UFOs on his house in Covington, La. - and finally, to God.
"He knew that someday, he would be in heaven with his father," Campbell said. "Much to our shock, today was that day."